August 18: William Porcher DuBose, Priest, 1918

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

About this commemoration

William DuBose
William DuBose

William Porcher DuBose, probably the most original and creative thinker the American Episcopal Church has ever produced, spent most of his life as a professor at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee. He was not widely traveled, and not widely known, until, at the age of 56, he published the first of several books on theology that made him respected, not only in his own country, but also in England and France.

DuBose was born in 1836 in South Carolina, into a wealthy and cultured Huguenot family. At the University of Virginia, he acquired a fluent knowledge of Greek and other languages, which helped him lay the foundation for a profound understanding of the New Testament. His theological studies were begun at the Episcopal seminary in Camden, South Carolina. He was ordained in 1861, and became an officer and chaplain in the Confederate Army.

Doctrine and life were always in close relationship for DuBose. In a series of books he probed the inner meaning of the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, and the Epistle to the Hebrews. He treated life and doctrine as a dramatic dialogue, fusing the best of contemporary thought and criticism with his own strong inner faith. The result was both a personal and scriptural catholic theology. He reflected, as he acknowledged, the great religious movements of the nineteenth century: the Tractarianism of Oxford; the liberalism of F.D. Maurice; the scholarship of the Germans; and the evangelical spirit that was so pervasive at the time.

The richness and complexity of DuBose’s thought are not easily captured in a few words, but the following passage, written shortly before his death in 1918, is a characteristic sample of his theology: “God has placed forever before our eyes, not the image but the Very Person of the Spiritual Man. We have not to ascend into Heaven to bring Him down, nor to descend into the abyss to bring Him up, for He is with us, and near us, and in us. We have only to confess with our mouths that He is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God has raised Him from the dead—and raised us in Him—and we shall live.”

Collect of the Day

Almighty God, you gave to your servant William Porcher DuBose special gifts of grace to understand the Scriptures and to teach the truth as it is in Christ Jesus: Grant that by this teaching we may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Deuteronomy 30:11–14

2 Timothy 1:11–14

Luke 24:25–32

Psalm 37:3–6,32–33

Preface of the Epiphany

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

17 thoughts on “August 18: William Porcher DuBose, Priest, 1918

  1. New Hebrew reading: This seems to be a good choice for the commemoration.

    And as he is a prominent Sewanee notable … he deserves a Sewanee cheer: ‘Yea, Sewanee’s right!’
    (I just couldn’t help myself, sorry) 🙂

  2. In a review of Robert Slocum’s _The Theology of William Porcher Dubose: Life, Movement, and Being_
    (Anglican Theological Review, Fall 2001) Gardiner Shattuck, Jr. says Dubose was a “post-war defender of the Ku Klux Klan.” Does anyone know what this “defense” consisted of? The period of Reconstruction in the south lasted until 1877, when northern troops were withdrawn. During Reconstruction, blacks held political office at the state and national level. The Ku Klux Klan worked to intimidate blacks to keep them from voting. When the Northern troops were withdrawn, a series of acts were passed one by one (like the “Jim Crow” laws) in the South to undo any political advances blacks had made. In the North and in the South, the focus was on the reunion of those who had been enemies during the Civil War–fine in itself, but the civil rights of blacks were increasingly ignored or done away with. –I hoped to find evidence that Dubose had changed his mind on this issue, and perhaps in his book _Turning Points in My Life_ (1911, written for the reunion of those at the University of the South who had taken courses from him for 36 years there) there would be some evidence–but at least in his introduction, available on line, there is none. There is talk about Aristotelian ethics, but not how they applied to the treatment of blacks.
    If Dubose is noted for the close relationship of his doctrine and his life (see bio above), I wonder about this omission. Perhaps he commented on it elsewhere?

  3. Confederate ties are usually disqualifying, unless the veteran is also a proper Highchurchman. The KKK connection is another matter and needs to be investigated.
    His sins being scarlet may be one strike against him, but are his books read?
    Theological Eduation for All counts him among the “contemporary (sic!) Episcopal and Anglican Theologians” whose works they encourage you to explore. Several of Dubose’s books are in print (meaning somebody’s reading them, or at least buying them), but a Google search of “William Dubose + syllabus” turned up nothing else, suggesting that he’s not making many required reading lists.
    And Sewanee’s own EfM course materials don’t even mention him, not even in the bibliography.

  4. I don’t think Confederate ties should be disqualifying, even though condoning slavery was an issue in the Civil War–being on the wrong side of the Civil or Revolutionary War (like Seabury and others who were Tories, I think, at least at first) should not be a disqualifier. I don’t know what is meant by “a proper Highchurchman”–I used to think it had to do with what the Oxford movement contributed in the 19th century, but I think in the 18th century it also had to do with participating in the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (hence evangelical in a sense) and having a “high Eucharistic doctrine.” Steve, could you explain the meaning of the term as you used it? Anyway, I agree with Steve that “being a postwar defender of the KKK” and apparently not changing his mind really does need to be checked out. Post-Reconstruction denials of civil liberties for blacks were not begun to be corrected until the 1950s. That was a long time. –About Dubose’s saying that Christ was “the very Person of the Spiritual Man”–I guess one would have to read Dubose in depth to find out what he meant by that. It’s not the same thing as saying that Christ was both human and divine. The fact that someone is “Spiritual” doesn’t necessarily mean s/he is Christian, or even “religious” at all. Was Dubose finding an original, theological way to say Christ was not “very God of very God, begotten not made”?

    • I used “Highchurchman” with a bit of irony, thinking of those who, convinced that the Anglican Communion is not now nor has it ever been a Protestant denomination, seem to see Laud, Seabury, Hobart, Keble, and Dubose as alike as peas in a single liturgical and theological pod. Churchmanship the best answer I can come up with for why some of the folks that made HWHM/LFF got in, and bishops Richard Channing Moore, William Meade, and John Johns, who in their own day were far more influential figures, didn’t.
      As for a proper definition, I’m partial to Henry Codman Potter’s: “The [Low Church] claimed piety, simplicity, and scriptural authority as its distinguishing notes, and the [High Church] glorified order, reverence, and apostolic tradition as its pre-eminent distinctions; and neither willingly lost an opportunity of disparaging brethren of the same household of faith, with whom they were proud to disagree.”
      I’m sure Sewanee would be outraged if we tried to purge Dubose, but let’s not forget that DuBose’s Sewanee was proud to host the bishops who drafted the “Sewanee Canon” in 1883. The canon would have put all African-American Episcopalians in a non-geographic “colored missionary district,” regardless of where they lived. As I understand it, the proposal carried the House of Bishops at the following General Convention, but the Deputies wouldn’t buy it. Thus proving that bishops are not an unmixed blessing, and giving us another reason to be thankful that Seabury did not get his way in organizational matters. Had his ideas prevailed, there would have been no House of Deputies to block the measure. Which is why I still think LFF had it right, commemorating Seabury’s consecration, rather than his life and ministry.

    • When DuBose uses the phrase “Spiritual Man,” he does mean it to say that Christ is both human and divine. He does not at any place in his writings suggest anything to the contrary.

  5. DuBose is not in the calendar just because he is a priest.

    In the caption to the propers, I recommend use of another descriptive word.

    It could be ” and Teacher”, for example.

  6. Nigel–good comment about what’s in the proper. I’m still concerned, though, about what he represented as a teacher since he is said to have lived the Gospel in his life, but–from the source I cited, which sounds like a trustworthy one, he supported the KKK. This group’s activity during the period following Reconstruction (Reconstruction ended in 1877) was responsible for a policy of racial intimidation in regards to civil rights. Many respected people in American politics were active in the KKK at one time or another; it was politically advantageous to do so in the South. Some, like Senator Robert Byrd, later apologized for their membership. If DuBose were truly a teacher worthy of being followed, I don’t think he would have “followed the crowd” on the matter of supporting the KKK during his lifetime. Perhaps there is some comment in DuBose’s writings about the suppression of civil rights which would exonerate him. If he was deeply concerned with ethics, as I’m gathering he was, and with soteriology, I don’t see how he could avoid commenting on this issue.

  7. DuBose is already in the Calendar. There is a process for deleting names, but I don’t believe it has ever been used on a name approved by two successive conventions. (The first time that Florence Nightingale was listed, we didn’t proceed to confirm her, because of reports that she died an apostate. I believe the subsequent conclusion was that, although she was an independent Christian and not a convinced C of E member, she lived and died a Christian. When her name was again proposed, she “made it”.)

    I have no criticism of further research checking out possible racism and long-term support of the KKK, but let’s remember that Birth of a Nation, with its affirming scenes of the KKK, was made around the time of DuBose’s death.

    I think that Sewanee would resist fiercely any proposal to remove DuBose. (When I did a Visiting Fellowship there, at the suggestion of and with the support of Marion Hatchett, I was assigned the DuBose room, I should disclose!)

  8. Interesting that he’s already been approved by two successive conventions. I find it hard to believe in 2006 and 2003 his KKK endorsement wouldn’t have been considered relevant–must have been that people weren’t aware of it (although I think the article I cited was written in 2001), _Birth of a Nation_ was shown in the White House in 1915. I heard that a Supreme Court justice at the time of the showing said he was a member of the KKK, but when I checked it yesterday, there was some doubt. –If DuBose’s theology was original, his ethics appear to have been a simple reflection of the times–I thought Aristolelian ethics (which DuBose discusses in one of his papers as a starting point) went deeper than that. –You are no doubt right about not taking him off the calendar, but calling him “the most original and creative thinker the American Episcopal Church has ever produced” (as the bio says) is a bit hard to take.

  9. His work, The Soteriology of the New Testament, was a great contribution. The service for the Confederacy and the lack of a clear statement against the idea that blacks were inferior are troubling. No mortal man is a perfect Christian. I suggest we let God judge the man but he should remain notable for his treatises.

  10. The article unfortunately omitted his undergraduate work at The Citadel (Class of 1855) where he experienced his conversion, “I lept to my feet trembling, and then that happened that I can only describe by saying that a light shone about me and a Presence filled the room. At the same time, ineffable joy and peace took possession of me which it is impossible to either express or explain.”
    Source: Dubose, Wm. Porcher. Turning Points in My Life, (New York: Longmans, Green, & Co) 1912, p. 18-19.

  11. At the very least the “history” in the last sentence of the 2nd paragraph should be cleaned up. Dubose did not join as a chaplain, but rather volunteered as a soldier and only later in 1863 became a chaplain… and later still a deacon.
    “In 1863 my service was mainly along the coasts, from Virginia as far as Vicksburg, Mississippi. During that year influential friends in Church and State, probably to preserve what remained of me for service of another kind, entirely without my knowledge or consent, procured for me a commission as chaplain, with orders to report at the headquarters of Kershaw’s brigade. In the beginning of 1864 I joined my new command in winterquarters about the town of Greeneville, Tennessee. In the little church in that place, as recently ordained deacon, I began my ministry, ”
    William Porcher Dubose, Turning points in my life (1912), 38-39

  12. If nothing else, Dubose in his celebration of the Confederacy “of which it has been so beautifully said in poetry’s phrase —
    “No nation rose so white and fair,
    None fell so pure of crime.
    appears quite clearly as a defender of the “Lost Cause.”

    The context was his memoir of Capers:
    Returning from the war, at its close, with his honorable wounds still unhealed, among many others of his kind there was none who stood higher in the mind or in the eye of his State than General Ellison Capers,—none at least among the younger men, with whom lay the direction and destinies of the future. Many years ago it was written of him: “So many times on account of his graceful oratory has he been called upon to address his fellow citizens, especially upon Confederate occasions, that he might fitly be considered to have earned the title of Orator Laureate of the Confederacy, of which it has been so beautifully said in poetry’s phrase —
    “No nation rose so white and fair,
    None fell so pure of crime.”
    But it was not alone General Capers’ graceful oratory that made him thenceforth, what he has been so often called, “the best-beloved man in his State.” It was a combination of many deeper graces and more attractive and controlling qualities, some only of which were simplicity, purity, modesty, unselfishness, faithfulness, spiritual elevation, personal charm. There was no man in whom the whole law was more truly fulfilled in the one word Love. Sympathy, service, sacrifice were the air he breathed and the life he lived.
    William Porcher Dubose, “Ellison Capers,” The Sewanee review, vol. 16 (1908), 370

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